Her family began operating a dairy farm in Litchfield when she was 2, and she recently has been involved in helping her father and brother transition ownership from one generation to the next. That change is working out well for her family, Beal said Tuesday. She now lives in Portland and is looking forward to helping other Maine farmers with their own transitions and challenges in her new role heading up the Belfast-based nonprofit organization.
“I come to this with a lifetime of experience and interest in agriculture,” she said. “I feel very aligned with the work the Maine Farmland Trust has been doing and am excited to bring that work forward.”
She will take over for outgoing CEO John Piotti, who is leaving to become president of the American Farmland Trust, a national group that does similar work as the Maine Farmland Trust.
Beal has been working with the statewide organization since early 2015, most recently in the position of vice president of programs and policy. Before that, she served on the boards of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Eat Local Foods Coalition of Maine and Cultivating Community, a Portland-based nonprofit agency that operates community gardens and supports immigrants who farm. She also has entrepreneurial experience from when she managed a retail food store that included a lot of Maine food producers as vendors. When she talks about the opportunities present in local agriculture, she speaks with confidence.
“There’s definitely an increasingly supportive consumer base for Maine farmers and people that are really interested in supporting local farms,” she said. “Also people who are shopping in retail stores and asking for local foods to be present. It’s continuing to grow this interest in knowing where our food is coming from, and we’re attracting young farmers who want to be in Maine.”
But real challenges remain.
“We have to keep farmland as working farmland,” she said. “It’s clear that in some parts of the state we’re definitely seeing some development pressure, and working to keep farmland into the future is definitely a critical need.”
Other challenges include expanding farm production in a responsible way, making sure farmers can earn a living wage and grappling with the impact of climate change.
“That’s something I hear farmers talking about,” she said. “My family has noticed some real changes on our farm. We have to learn how to farm in a changing world.”
But if Maine agriculture continues to grow, the Pine Tree State could be an important piece in New England food production. Beal collaborated on a 2014 regional study that looked at the potential for the New England states to produce much more food than they do now.
“We found that we would be able to produce 50 percent of the food we eat if we scale up farmland from 2 million acres in production to 6 million,” she said. “We have a fair amount of land in Maine that could be farmed, if we want to be a big piece of that scenario. There is opportunity here. Where the Maine Farmland Trust comes in is that we want to see farmers be part of that opportunity.”